Powerful Chicago Tribune Editorial on the institutionalization of David Tom for
31 years! Also talks about Governor Quinn’s Rebalancing Initiative the closing
of the Jacksonville Developmental Center and the need to close Murray in
David Tom regained his freedom but far to many citizens with intellectual
disabilities remain isolated from the community in antiquated state institutions.
David Tom, an Asian immigrant, was locked up from 1951 through at least
1982 in Illinois mental institutions largely because no one in authority ever
spoke to him in his native Chinese. His horrifying experience cemented
the case against institutionalizing the mentally ill and developmentally
Tom died Aug. 16 at the estimated age of 84. It has been a long time since
he was in the headlines, and likely few people remember his case. It’s
worth a telling.
Tom won his freedom through a high-profile legal campaign waged by then-
Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, who is now a circuit court
judge. The Tribune ran one of its stories on the case under the headline,
“State chews up a life, then spits victim out.”
A federal jury awarded Tom $400,000 after his release. Still, his prospects
looked bleak. Being locked up and unable to say much more in English than,
“Me no crazy,” had driven him, in a word, crazy. He needed constant
supervision and care.
Tom’s saviors were San O, Peter Porr and others associated with the
South-East Asia Center, a community organization on Chicago’s North Side.
O said that over time, living in a settlement-house setting among supportive
companions since 1983, Tom regained some of his lost social and
communication skills. He responded positively to people around him, enjoyed
shaking hands and loved to sing. His favorite tune, she said: “Que Sera, Sera,”
its title a phrase that means, roughly, “What will be, will be.”
O, a social worker, suspects that language was only part of the reason for
Tom’s 31 years in institutionalized care. Testing methods were culturally
biased, she said, and prone to exaggerate the “minor” issues that Tom
likely exhibited when he was first placed in a Cook County sanitarium after
contracting tuberculosis. Further, she said, “In those days they locked up all
the so-called mentally ill.”
These days, across the country, the “insane asylums” of yore mostly have
given way to group homes in community settings. There is a place for high-
quality institutions, but it is limited.
In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn set out three years ago to scale back the state’s
antiquated and expensive network of mental health facilities as well as
developmental centers — institutions that care for people who can’t live
independently because of profound disabilities. Most other states have
closed these operations and moved residents whenever it’s appropriate to
At the end of 2012, Quinn’s administration achieved a significant milestone
when it closed the outdated Jacksonville Developmental Center — once
known as the State Hospital for the Insane — over the objections of
government union workers and local officials who viewed this costly,
inefficient operation as a taxpayer-funded economic engine.
A federal judge recently swatted down objections to Quinn’s plan for
closing the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia. To
his credit, Quinn is moving deliberately to ensure that its residents receive
safe and appropriate placements. Republican challenger Bruce Rauner
has said he supports keeping Murray open, which mystifies us.
For the most part, the nation has made a welcome shift to cost effective
and humane community-based care. Still, the nation, and particularly this
state, have tremendous work left to do to properly treat people with
mental and physical disabilities. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart wrote on
these pages recently that Cook County Jail, which he supervises, has
turned into the state’s largest mental health facility.
Could David Tom be consigned today to three decades in an institution
until champions came to his rescue? Let’s hope not. Let’s reflect on his life,
and recognize that the dignified treatment of the disabled remains one of
the great challenges of American society.
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423